Labouring in Glasgow: Dum dum dum dum-te-dum dum-te-dum


For me the enduring image of the Referendum campaign will be of a large group of smartly clad Labour MPs, being pursued through the streets of Glasgow by a Yes campaigner on a rickshaw with a loud hailer, accompanied by the Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme) from the Empire Strikes Back. The man on the rickshaw goads the Labour MP’s, repeating ad nauseum – in fact, until he was hoarse – phrases like:

“Glasgow, your imperial masters have arrived”
“Welcome your imperial masters”
“Bow down, Glasgow, to the Labour Party”

Some of the Better Together crew stopped to engage with their heckler, but most of the marchers walked on, only a little more briskly, towards their destination: a set piece photo opportunity led by Ed Miliband and a hundred handpicked Labour loyalists. The haranguing continues throughout. This was all captured by video and exported virally via YouTube:

Silly? Certainly. Unproductive? Probably. Constructive? Nah, not really. Yet somehow, that image stuck with me as somehow symbolic of both the campaign as a whole and the state of the current Labour Party machine. For, even taking into account the various doubts that spring to mind about this sort of action (they weren’t all MPs, and within our movement, everyone has a right to be heard etc), I can’t have been the only Labour member to have a wry chuckle to themselves at the discomfort of our fine representatives in Parliament, far from home (the Westminster Bubble) and exposed to a bit of rough justice.

For anyone who has watched from the sidelines as the New Labour machine bulldozered it’s way through the party, the Empire Strikes back theme tune will have seemed very appropriate. Because, you see, they did it to us – and have been for a decade and a half. When a bright, young Progress SpAd (Special Adviser) wings their way into a constituency seemingly up for grabs, armed with their generic glossy leaflets and slick PowerPoint presentation, they should be similarly accompanied by the Imperial March. That is how many ordinary members see the machine that the party has become – impenetrable, impersonal and deeply ruthless. Dum dum dum dum-te-dum dum-te-dum

Most importantly, however, this is how the Party is now perceived, not just in Scotland, but in large swathes of Britain which would have been counted as Labour heartlands just a decade or so ago. One Nation Labour should be bricking it, because this is serious. Rightly or wrongly, the party has become a symbol of the over-managed, slick and vacuous politics of the Westminster elite, supported only by the loyal foot soldiers who think they might pick up some of the crumbs along the way.

Note, this isn’t the reality of the Labour Party as a whole, as anyone who spends any time with activists on the ground soon realises, but this is the image which has been created, not just by its enemies, but by the party managers themselves, frightened as they are to allow anything but the smiley happy people out for the photo op.

Of course, the ironic thing is that the Scottish Labour Party has been at the epicentre of the New Labour philosophy, and the concomitant control freakery. Just think back to Falkirk. That has made it even more difficult for the Better Together campaign to get any traction – because what symbolises the degeneration of the Labour Party more than the arch Blairite Jim Murphy lording it over local Unite activists in Falkirk and John (Lord) Reid telling people not to vote if they don’t “understand” the issues – not to mention the disastrous Lamont? Whatever happens tomorrow, if the Scottish Labour Party wants to have any credibility, and not be forever associated with the failed Blairite model, its leftwing will seriously and determinedly have to rip it up and start again.

Even the most ardent Labour loyalist would have to admit that the Better Together camp has been outmaneuvered and out thought by a vibrant and creative Yes campaign. It’s as if they were speaking a different language. The Yes campaign, no matter what criticisms can be made of it, have exposed the Labour Party’s achilles heel – its total lack of interest in grassroots activism. A whole generation of Labour members have grown up only being asked to leaflet, post newsletters through doors and if they’re loaded, turn up to annual dinners. At no point are they asked to do anything spontaneous, creative or hone any arguments. In fact, if you have strong opinions, it’s a distinct disadvantage.

Admittedly from afar, I have seen none of that from the Yes campaign – which appears to have welcomed activists, creators, musicians and loud hailers. Of course, they have had an easy foe – both in the Tories and in relentlessly targeting New Labour at its worst. Better Together has been unable, physically, to match the youth and enthusiasm of that activist base. That is something the party should think very carefully about, even more so than any potential formal political fall out from a Yes vote. The Labour Party machine has essentially given up on being anything resembling a campaigning movement. From the head downwards, it has become an electoral machine at best, but at worst, an isolated bunch of men (and women) in suits, marching through Glasgow like storm troopers because they’ve been told to do so, heckled and abused by angry voters. That future road isn’t very promising…well, we know how Empire ends, don’t we? The Death Star explodes (p.s if you don’t get the Star Wars reference, cf PASOK).

…Dum dum dum dum-te-dum dum-te-dum


The Referendum And The Not So Strange Death of Labour Scotland

If tomorrow’s referendum delivers a yes vote, the first person Alex Salmond should phone up and thank for making all this possible is Tony Blair. After all, it is New Labour’s almost total abandonment of its natural supporters which has handed the SNP this historic opportunity. Over defining issues such as Iraq, Trident, tuition fees and prescription charges, it is the SNP which has consistently represented Labour values while New Labour lined up with the Tories in display after display of total contempt for many of Labour’s members and supporters. It is an open secret that New Labour’s electoral strategy involved openly courting middle class voters while cynically banking on keeping its traditional supporters because ”they had nowhere else to go.” Yet by simply saying many of the things that Labour used to say in the not-so-distant past and therefore providing a home for many disillusioned Labour supporters, the SNP in Scotland (as well as Plaid Cymru in Wales) have both managed to secure unprecedented levels of support.

Salmond should of course follow this up with message of thanks to David Cameron, whose agenda of savage cuts to public services and social security alongside wholesale privatization has certainly helped the Yes campaign gather support. But where once – including under Thatcher – the return of a Labour government was seen as the natural antidote to even the worst Tory misrule, the bitter experiences of 13 years of New Labour, followed by 4 years of largely timid opposition and even occasional capitulation from Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ Labour, has meant that independence is now seen by many working-class people as the only way of securing a meaningful alternative to austerity.

I’m skeptical about some of the claims made by the Scottish pro-independence left. Scotland could just as easily become another Ireland as it could another Sweden. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a crisis of representation and a belief in the possibility of a more equitable society, rather than a wave of narrow-minded nationalism, which has galvanized the demand for Scottish independence.

Just a few generations ago in Glasgow, huge crowds literally carried their victorious Labour MPs shoulder-high and waved them off to Westminster, while elsewhere in the West of Scotland, the saying went that Labour votes were weighed rather than counted. How ironic then that the decisive factor tomorrow’s referendum may well be the belief that only through voting yes – which will inevitably lead to the SNP as the first party of government in an independent Scotland – can ordinary people preserve what still remains of the greatest achievements of the post-war Labour governments.